Taking centerstage at a magnificent floorshow, two tuxedoed gents tap-dance inside giant bubbles — a metaphor for the grand illusions floating around the 1920s Shanghai where “Gone With the Bullets” is set. This fifth feature helmed by China’s foremost director-actor, Jiang Wen, is a saucy picaresque that salutes the world of grifters, raconteurs and dreamers, powered by a tragicomic hero negotiating his way around warlords, prostitutes, police chiefs and aspiring filmmakers. Deliriously grandiose, the film takes wild gambits in style and storytelling, and despite its visual excesses and overreaching political allegory, overall it represents an exuberant homage to cinema. Considering the pre-release hype, current domestic B.O. (roughly $81 million in 16 days) has been strong but not superb.
The $20 million production boasts visual effects by Piximondo and state-of-the-art lensing; it’s reportedly the world’s first film to shoot with the Arri Alexa XT M 3D camera, and the first in Asia to shoot with Imax 3D cameras. Too bad the 3D version caught in China was gravely underlit and blurry to the point of inducing nausea, likely due to censor delays that may have resulted in an overly rushed DCP. On Dec. 22, five days after “Gone’s” domestic release, the China Film Bureau (SAPPRFT) issued an “urgent notice” exhorting cinemas to abide by quality projection standards; the next day, a 2D version became available.
Some viewers have complained about the film’s poor 3D on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but more frequently, they voiced their difficulty grasping the film’s meaning. Admittedly, the nine screenwriters — including Jiang, his fifth-time collaborator Shu Ping and author-scribe Wang Shuo (“In the Heat of the Sun,” “Personal Tailor”) — have crammed their script with dialogue and sent it careening from one preposterous situation to another. What’s onscreen, however, evokes the restless, exhilarating spirit of its gold-digging milieu, hitting its stride in the second half en route to a blazing absurdist finale. It’s also packed with visual nods to old movies, including playful use of period newsreel footage and archival stills.
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At the dawn of the republic, Shanghai was hailed as an “adventurer’s paradise” for the likes of Ma Zouri (Jiang) and sidekick Xiang Feitian (Ge You), erstwhile Manchurian aristocrats who, following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, have left Beijing to seek their fortunes in the glittering metropolis. In an ingenious pastiche of “The Godfather,” they listen to the supplications of Wu Qi (Wen Zhang), a wealthy playboy who’s been humiliated by an Italian belle. Putting his warlord father’s military budget at their disposal, he begs them to “change my money from new to old.”
Although it’s never clear how this would raise Qi’s social stature, Ma masterminds a contest to crown the most popular courtesan in Shanghai “president of Flower Realm,” introducing novelties like “universal suffrage” while pulling off a sumptuous cabaret show boasting possibly the longest chorus line of naked thighs in Chinese cinema. Qi’s elder sister, Wu Liu (Jiang’s wife Zhou Yun, “Let the Bullets Fly,” “The Sun Also Rises”), who dreams of being “the Chinese Lumiere,” seizes the day in hopes of making her directorial debut.
Wanyan Ying (Shu Qi), a self-professed Mongolian princess who’s won the contest twice, makes a stunning entrance, and wins the title again through a publicity stunt that serves to lampoon sham government elections. In a scene that both exemplifies and subverts classic screwball comedy, Wanyan proposes marriage to Ma. Giddy with opium-induced ecstasy, the amorous pair go on a drive, with unexpected consequences.
Wanyan and Ma’s misadventures are loosely connected to the 1920 “Yan Ruisheng Case,” a scandalous robbery-murder that ignited public outrage, shook authorities in Shanghai’s French and Chinese concessions, and became the subject of two films and numerous plays. However, the screenplay has taken fanciful liberties with the facts, remolding the salacious tale into a topical allegory on the perils of living in a state without the rule of law.
As the wheel of fortune turns against Ma, one finally becomes engaged on a narrative level, particularly through his blackly comic encounters with Generalissimo Wu (Liu Linian); his wife, Qi Sainan (Hong Huang); and his regiment of concubines. Wu, who possesses the combined brutishness and jocularity typical of charismatic despots, has a taste for imaginative punishments, leading to the kinkiest bondage scene in mainland cinema since “Switch.” The megalomaniacal ambitions of the government, the military, the police and the showbiz industry collide to form a perfidious conspiracy, which unfolds with riveting tension and contemporary resonance.
Few mainland films have made a wittier burlesque of China’s nouveau riche than “Gone With the Bullets,” which pokes fun at their obsession with “face” while conveying the irresistible appeal of their luxury. Yet the characters’ passion and convictions rise above mere social satire.
Zhou, in her biggest star turn, blossoms over the course of the film, maintaining poise whether she’s playing the entitled heiress or showing her true colors as a rebel and idealist. This isn’t the first time Jiang has played dandy roles but this one is larger than life: Few other actors could express such gallantry, laughing in the face of death during a quixotic finale set in a wind mill. Ge, who was fully Jiang’s equal in “Let the Bullets Fly,” tends to fade into the background here, though his performance is still subtle, hiding Xiang’s ruthlessness and disloyalty beneath the innocuous veneer of a lapdog-clown. Hong is perfect as a hypocrite who couches her materialism in pearls of worldly wisdom.
Craft contributions are lavish to a fault, evoking the Jazz Age in its full-blown glory on a soundstage that’s almost twice the size of the original 1920 French concession. William Chang reportedly deployed 27,249 costumes, all of which look swooningly gorgeous. The shamelessly opulent sets by production designer Liu Qing (“Forever Enthralled) don’t so much mimic as rival Baz Luhrmann’s visual extravagance, enhanced by Xie Zhengyu’s elegant lensing.
Mounted by American choreographers Keith and Sharon Young and cast with top Broadway dancers, the cabaret shows are jaw-dropping in their pageantry. Unfortunately, the quality of the sound design by Eugene Geartry and the mixing by Michael Minkler and Josh Berger was hard to discern in the dull, flat version caught at the screening reviewed.
The Chinese title translates as “As Far as One Step,” which may refer to the 1935 Tango song “Por una cabeza.”